Bladensburg Road to Amsterdam: Is There Really a “Red Light District” In Ward Five?
The Board of Zoning Adjustment was scheduled to render a decision this week on one of the higher-ick-factor cases to come before it in recent months: Whether the Zoning Administrator had erred in issuing a standard Certificate of Occupancy to the Stadium Club, a steak-and-strippers joint off Bladensburg Road NE. A group called the Ward Five Improvement Association charged that the Club–the culinary aspects of which our dearly departed Tim Carman reviewed back in July–was not a typical restaurant, but rather a Sexually Oriented Business Establishment (SOBE, like the drink), which would require a different kind of license that would be harder to get for the zoning category. Zoning Administrator Matt LeGrant, they argued, didn't do his due diligence in personally visiting the Stadium Club to find out how it was operating, relying instead on written promises from the owner.
In her deliberations, BZA Chair Meridith Moldenhauer navigated with admirable poise around technical questions of whether the activities on offer qualified the place as sexually-oriented or not. Turns out there are two-pronged tests for these kinds of things. The first prong, incidences of "sexual intercourse, masturbation, sodomy, bestiality, sexual stimulation, or sexual arousal," seemed to be clearly satisfied. "The crux of the case," Moldenhauer said with the slightest of smiles,"is under B, which is whether fondling of human genitalia, buttocks or breasts is happening at the establishment."
In Moldenhauer's judgment, the evidence seemed to indicate that Stadium Club probably is a SOBE, and that LeGrant had failed in his due diligence to actually visit the establishment and find out. (Bet he didn't realize frequenting strip clubs would fall within the purview of a Zoning Administrator). But fellow boardmember Konrad Schlater thought that the BZA shouldn't be telling LeGrant how to do his job, and only three people on the five-person board were present–actually four-person board, since Still Mayor Adrian Fenty hasn't filled the fifth slot–so Moldenhauer couldn't get enough votes to grant the appeal, which was kicked down another month.
The somewhat absurd exercise was but one battle in a war for the Ward Five Improvement Association. Founded and loosely headed by Don Padou, whose wife runs the quasi-activist Brookland Heartbeat, its mission is to stem the influx of fleshly establishments into corners of the ward that strip club proprietors displaced from the ballpark area and the increasingly expensive central business district have targeted. The Association also plans to challenge Club AKA 555 on the same grounds as the Stadium Club, and is willing to take the case all the way up to the Court of Appeals. Padou feels that these two, plus a couple similar establishments on West Virginia Avenue NE, are the beginnings of a "red light district" that could lend Ward Five an unsavory character. Residents are already feeling the negative effects.
"On any given Saturday or Sunday morning, if you live any where close to Queens Chapel Road, your yard is filled with garbage, beer bottles, condoms," Padou says. "The people who live closest have kind of a constant problem with fights and loud groups of people walking by. The problem isn’t in the early evening, it’s when the clubs shut down."
Meanwhile, even if strippers are kept inside the clubs, Padou finds that the patrons take their behavior elsewhere. "The problem is, other women know that these clubs are creating an appetite, and are there to fill the need," he says–to cars, in alleys, wherever.
The strip clubs fit into what Padou thinks is an overall sense that Ward Five has become a "dumping ground" for things other wards don't want, while parks and schools don't get their fair share. Hence, the Association, which can earn standing in cases before bodies like the BZA and Court of Appeals. They're not launching legal challenges just to make a statement–it's an expensive and time-consuming enterprise.
"You can’t do it unless you’re really on the side of angels," Padou says, "And you think you’re going to win."